People's irrationality - and its benefits

Dear colleagues,

In his last year of high school, Dan Ariely suffered horrific burns to most of his body. He survived, after undergoing painful treatment for years. This experience transformed his self-image. It also gave him lots of time and reasons to think about thinking when, later, he became a psychologist and behavioural economist researching how people think and behave.

Ariely uses his personal experiences, and his research, to good effect in his latest popular book, The Upside of Irrationality. He makes two key claims:

"1. We have many irrational tendencies.

2. We are often unaware of how these irrationalities influence us, which means that we don't fully understand what drives our behavior." (p. 288)

One implication is that we should doubt our intuition, because intuition can lead to ongoing mistakes. Questioning oneself and one's beliefs can lead to improvements in life.

Academics, at least those trained in critical analysis, should be experts at doubting intuition, though doubting is most commonly targeted at the views of other academics in the same field. In the rest of life, I suspect, we are just as prone to unsuspected irrationality as anyone else.

Ariely begins by telling about research on the effect of big bonuses on work performance. Intuitively, bonuses should stimulate greater efforts, but experiments show bonuses can actually hinder performance: workers focus on their bonuses to the detriment of their work. So it's just as well that university staff seldom receive bonus payments.

If you want to wreak work performance, provide big bonuses. What else? Ariely describes fascinating experiments about work motivation. One of them "taught us that sucking the meaning out of work is surprisingly easy. If you're a manager who really wants to demotivate your employees, destroy their work in front of their eyes. Or, if you want to be a little subtler about it, just ignore them and their efforts. On the other hand, if you want to motivate people working with you and for you, it would be useful to pay attention to them, their effort, and the fruits of their labor." (p. 76)

This reminded me of "James", an academic (not from around here) whose dean asked him to prepare a plan for the faculty. After months of work, the dean casually ignored all his work and did something entirely different. James told me he hated this dean more than anyone else in the world.

The lesson about the meaning of the work is striking. Imagine writing academic papers that bring you promotions, but no one ever reads the papers. Ariely questions whether he would bother, and notes that blogging provides a satisfaction that can stimulate effort.

Ariely says, "If companies really want their workers to produce, they should try to impart a sense of meaning - not just through vision statements but by allowing employees to feel a sense of completion and ensuring that a job well done is acknowledged. At the end of the day, such factors can exert a huge influence on satisfaction and productivity." (p. 80)

This is relevant to research, teaching and just about everything else.

Ariely next describes experiments that show people overvalue things they create themselves. Furthermore, people don't realise that they are overvaluing their creations: they think everyone else loves them just as much as they do themselves. This helps explain why researchers think so highly about their research - which may not be a bad thing. If we realised how little others cared, it might be difficult to continue. There can be value in irrationality, as Ariely says.

Overvaluation of one's own creations leads to a bias against other people's ideas: if it's not invented here, the assumption is that it's no good. This seems to conflict with the cultural cringe, the assumption by Australians that success elsewhere (especially in Europe) is better than success in Australia. Ariely doesn't discuss this (he works in the US), so here's a research topic for someone.

Many workers try to minimise their effort. Far from following the supposedly outdated maxim that work builds character, they see leisure as their goal. Ariely cites research showing something different. Putting lots of effort into creating something can bring deep satisfaction. Think of this the next time you complain about heavy teaching loads, hostile referees, annoying software or bureaucratic obstacles. The research Ariely describes puts a new twist to former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser's much derided saying, "Life wasn't meant to be easy".

Ariely describes ingenious experiments to test people's likelihood of seeking revenge. Someone subject to even a slight discourtesy is much more likely to take unconscious revenge, for example not returning an overpayment. If someone is visiting you in your office and you interrupt to take a 10-second mobile phone call, this can be seen as discourteous - and you may be subject to reprisals, even though your visitor doesn't realise the reason why.

To fix this, all you need to do is say "sorry about the interruption". Ariely gives a formula for neutralising the desire for revenge: "1 annoyance + 1 apology = 0 annoyance" (p. 150). It sounds easy. Did we need research to tell us this? I think so, because it's not intuitively obvious that a trivial annoyance can lead to others taking unconscious revenge. Furthermore, the revenge doesn't have to be against the person causing the offence. When a university staff member causes annoyance to students or members of the public, they may take revenge against the university, for example by bad-mouthing it. Whether this is judged irrational may depend on your own attitude towards the university!

Ariely also tells about the role of irrationality in personal life, covering a range of fascinating points, including causes of happiness, the market for personal beauty (Ariely's unsightly burns are relevant here), online dating, empathy and the long-term effects of short-term emotions. Actually, many of these are relevant to work life too. Areily describes research showing why, for example, being offensively treated by a boss on just one occasion can lead to long-term alienation.

These findings make it sound as if we are, every day, causing all sorts of impacts on ourselves and others without knowing what we are doing. It sounds scary, but it's not all bad. By studying the research on irrationality, we can track a more informed, productive and satisfying path.

Brian Martin
19 December 2011


Dan Ariely, The upside of irrationality: the unexpected benefits of defying logic at work and at home (New York: HarperCollins, 2010)


Thanks to Mostafa Azizpour, Narelle Campbell, Ben Morris, Julia Najjar and Majken Sørensen for helpful comments


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